A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Self-care School: 2-step To-do Lists for Wiser Living

Following my last post about my struggle to accept limitations and set realistic goals, I want to share a very simple, practical trick I have found to help myself plan more realistically. It’s so simple, I can’t believe it took me this long to think of it! But I guess that’s just how growing up works.

The trick is to add a second step to making to-do lists. After I make my long list of “things I want to do today” (or this weekend, this month, etc.), then I make a new list: “things I choose to do today.” This list is always much shorter than the first, and in making it I force myself to think realistically and by priority. I should be able to easily accomplish the “choose to do” list, that is, if circumstances cooperate as I expect them to.

Because it’s hard to say no to all the unselected things on my “want to do” list, usually the last item on the “choose to do” list is “other things on ‘want to do’ list as time and energy allow.” If time and energy do allow, sometimes I’ll go back to the “want to do” list, cross off the things I’ve already done, and number the remaining items by priority. Other times, if nothing is especially pressing, I just do whatever I feel like doing.

But the key lies in the process of making the making the “choose to do” list. It involves (to use a term from Dialectical Behavior Therapy) radical acceptance of the fact that I will probably not get all my “want to do” things done. It’s hard, but it leaves me freer to focus on the things I have chosen to do. And thus it makes for a wiser, happier, and more effective day (week, month, etc.).

The other day I got brave and took a photo, above, of one of my actual to-do lists to show you what I mean. “W2D” and “C2D” are my shorthand for “want to do” and “choose to do,” of course. (The symbols beside some of the items are part of a little shorthand code I developed for myself a long time ago. I’ll put the code at the end of this post for those who are interested.)

But let me show you what it looks like before I put any tasks on the list:

I set up the structure like this before I add tasks to it because this is the way to get my mind to cooperate. For one thing, the line gives me a visual limit for my “want to do” list–because there is never actually an end to the things I want to do in any given moment, and if I let myself have too much space for it, I would just keep going and going. I could probably fill a whole notebook with things I want to do before even stopping to stretch my hand muscles! And the same holds true for the “choose to do” section, which gets less space than the “want to do” section for a reason. But I’m sure by now I don’t need to spell that one out for you!

Also, just writing “(1) W2D” and “(2) C2D” gets me in the right frame of mind for filling out the list. In fact, knowing that I’m going to do the “choose to do” step allows me to give myself a bit of free rein in the “want to do” section–that’s where I indulge my inner-child side and let my desires run wild. (You may not be able to tell that from my example list above, since that day had a particularly large number of practical tasks needing to be accomplished. Other days, the tasks are more about writing projects, learning projects, and so forth–that’s when I get really excited.)

Then in the “choose to do” section I bring out my inner-parent side for the wise self-parenting I talked about last time. I usually add in the things that I may not have even put on the “want to do” list (like, um, actual work for my job–all the other tasks are for any free moments I get between customers and work tasks. It’s not that I’ll forget to do my job, but this helps me remember the right priorities–and gives me another thing to check off at the end of the day!). I always make sure to write “self-care” at the top of the list–sometimes with stars and exclamation points, on days when I know I’ll really need that visual reminder to take care of myself and not let my mind run ahead of my body.

So, that’s a long-winded explanation of a very simple thing that is helping me live more wisely!

My little shorthand code for to-do list items:

} work on

] organize

^ think about

% research, look up, look into


4 comments on “Self-care School: 2-step To-do Lists for Wiser Living

  1. emilievardaman
    October 8, 2016

    What a very good idea!


  2. Sarah Brentyn
    July 24, 2017

    I love this idea. The language changes your outlook. The small space you provided is brilliant, too. Then you can’t get overwhelmed with a 3-page-long list (which is what I usually have). My question is this: I don’t want or choose to do some things so where do those ones go? Like, say, go to the dentist, bring my son to his 4th soccer practice this week, schedule an unpleasant doctors appt. I feel like 75% of my list is filled with things I have to do and only 25% things I want to do. So if I don’t get the “have to” stuff done (which I usually don’t), I can’t move on to the “want to” stuff.

    Sorry this got so long! Thanks for sharing it. πŸ™‚


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      July 27, 2017

      Good question, Sarah! Thanks!! Now that I have six-month old twin babies, I look back at my former list of things to do and laugh. How nice to only have a handful of “must do” items on my list, and to have the luxury of so much time to consider what I “want” to do!

      I now see that I will surely cycle through several to-do list systems as my needs change. That “two-step” system worked then, and now I’ve got another system I use for keeping myself on track with my daily chores (washing bottles, scooping cat litter, etc.) because that’s where my greatest challenge is right now. But I can easily see that in ten years, I’ll be more where you are, of having a thousand errands to run and miscellaneous tasks to do for an increasingly on-the-go family. But I don’t know yet what my system will be when I get there, so I’m afraid I don’t truly know how to help you! But I can try suggesting a couple things that may or may not help…

      First of all, if you do want to make some kind of use of my “two-step” list system, you may simply need to modify the concept. Change the phrase “want to do” to “need to do,” and it should become clearer. So your “need to do” list (step 1) is really the same thing as your current three-page long list. Then step 2, “choose to do,” is where you select the highest priority things from that list and make a new, smaller list that you can realistically accomplish and that helps you focus in on the highest priorities. Don’t forget to include some basic self-care tasks on that list whenever possible, because if we’re talking about priorities, basic self-care has to be at the top or the whole thing crumbles! ❀

      Second, like I said on your blog, the bullet journal idea may be a helpful thing for you. I think there's a YouTube video where the guy who came up with the idea explains the concept, so I suggest starting there. Also, I know there are some apps that are geared toward helping keep moms of busy families organized. The only one that I can currently think of, assuming it's still around, is called Cozi, but I'm sure there are others. May be something to explore.

      And finally, again like I said on your blog, whatever commitments you currently have that aren't being good for you and your family, you should get out of them if at all possible. People might be disappointed with you? Screw 'em. (I mean, with all gentleness and kindness, but still.) It's your life. You've got to do what YOU need to do. Like I said in my post "We Need You to Be Yourself," the more people who are true to themselves, the better our world will be, because being one's true self is contagious! πŸ™‚

      But much love and compassion to you in your crazy-busy state. These suggestions I've mentioned may or may not help a little, but the reality is, some stages of life are just hard! That's where I am now. I remind myself that it won't last forever, and (to quote a pop song lyric) that "these are the moments I'm gonna remember most."


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This entry was posted on October 7, 2016 by in Self-care and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
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